The 90th Anniversary of May Fourth


Tomorrow is the ninetieth anniversary of the student protests-turned-riots in Beijing in 1919. These protests became a symbol for those struggling to strengthen China, and the name “May Fourth” became shorthand for a cultural movement that lasted over half a decade and gave birth to some of China’s finest writers, artists, and scholars. These men and women looked primarily towards Japan and to the West, abandoning Chinese tradition in the hopes of discovering something that could save China. One of the many new ideas they discovered was Communism.

Full disclosure: Being, as I am, still in a state of diseased confusion, I’m going to post an excerpt from one chapter of my undergraduate thesis that I think gives a fairly in-depth description of exactly what happened on that day, along with a little bit of perspective, for those interested. The thesis is called A Single Silken Thread: Patriotism and the Expression of Hope in May Fourth Literature. I haven’t bothered to put the citations in because it’s a bit of a pain, but if you’re interested, I’m more than happy to respond to individual questions about sources in the comments.

Students in Beijing


It is undeniable that the May Fourth movement effectively began in universities and other intellectual circles. Students played an especially significant role. Although the movement is often portrayed as culturally iconoclastic—and in many ways, it was—the phenomenon of students intervening when government policy was harming the people was by no means novel. In fact, the first recorded occurrence of students holding demonstrations to criticize the government was in 542 B.C.E. The Han dynasty saw several protests where students interfered or attempted to interfere with government policy; the number of demonstrations that occurred during the Song and Ming dynasties after the advent of the civil service examination system is even higher.

However, the “students” of these traditional demonstrations were markedly different from the students who adopted that tradition in the early twentieth century. Traditional students were attending government-sponsored schools that tended to operate as feeder schools for the civil service, thus the intellectual background, and even the age of these students was different from the students of the May Fourth movement. Traditional students were by necessity skilled at memorization and had been drilled from a young age using primarily Confucian texts. They tended to be older than college students in the twentieth century, partially because the civil service examinations they were studying for from the Song period onward were both exceedingly difficult and infrequently offered, and partially because younger students tended to enroll in smaller tutorial schools that were comparatively isolated and rarely involved themselves with politics. In contrast, May Fourth students were younger, and their (comparatively) Westernized educational backgrounds meant that a large number of them had studied science, mathematics, and other “Western” subjects. Many of them had studied abroad in the West or in Japan, and were thus familiar with foreign ideas, languages, and literatures.

Dissatisfaction with the political and international fate of China was not the only catalyst for student uprising. With the Imperial examination system discontinued in 1905, students’ futures suddenly became rather unclear. Many still aspired to work for the government, but saw that under Yuan Shikai there was no real representative democracy, and thus no model for obtaining political power. For China’s new generation of students to become its leaders, they would have to undermine the extant system and create their own. Additionally, students generally lived together in large groups at Westernized universities, far from the often-conservative influences of their parents. Even if they went to college with little understanding of or interest in the new ideas that were pouring into China from the West, the university itself was a modern institution, and it was highly likely that at university, students would be in almost constant contact with other students and faculty who had studied abroad and were interested in the new ideas. It is also important to recall that “students” are never an entirely uniform group. Zhou Cezong estimates that on the eve of May 4, 1919, there were three categories of students: “the remnant of the prodigals who still led more or less luxurious and corrupt lives, the diligent students who devoted their attention more to study [than politics], and the third group that was most affected by the new ideas.” This last group, he argues, was probably no more than 20% of the student body as a whole, but these students tended to be more socially and politically visible than the others because they were more active.

Their activities, by and large, were predictably scholarly in character prior to the May Fourth Incident. The students founded study groups and youth societies to discuss new ideas amongst themselves, and published periodicals like New Tide (新潮 Xinchao, founded 1919) and New Youth (新青年 Xin Qingnian, founded 1915 ) to share their ideas with others. They were, by and large, extremely enthusiastic, but their understanding of the Western concepts they were grappling with was limited because of the novelty and the sheer number of new ideas that were suddenly available for consumption. Chinese students, Zhou Cezong wrote, were “like a man just coming into a lighted room out of one long darkened and finding everything curious.”

Student March in June, 1919
If the West was a lighted room, certainly many Chinese found the bulb growing dimmer as they entered it in the first part of the twentieth century. World War I had shattered many older intellectuals’ perceptions that the West was an ideal model for China; “the capacity for self-inflicted devastation that the war had revealed had shocked Western and Chinese observers alike.” Liang Qichao wrote in 1919 that Europeans “are like travelers in the desert and have lost their direction…They once had a great dream about the omnipotence of science. Now their talk is filled with its bankruptcy.” Younger students and radicals, however, often retained their faith in the West and science despite the warnings of traditional scholars like Liang “even as they sank deeper and deeper into their own despair about cultural change in China.”

Frustrations about China’s scientific and cultural backwardness and dissatisfaction with its current domestic and international situation all came to a head in late April 1919. The anniversary of “National Humiliation Day” , the day Japan delivered their ultimatum forcing China to acquiesce to the Twenty-one Demands in 1915, was coming up on May 7 and many students felt that China’s cultural and technological inferiority to the West had contributed to its international humiliations just as much as its consistently ineffective government. Furthermore, treaty negotiations following the German surrender in World War I—a war to which China had sent hundreds of thousands of laborers with the understanding that the Allies would return Shandong province to China when Germany surrendered—had begun that month in Paris, and reports indicated that despite China’s contributions to the war effort, Shandong was about to be granted to Japan. More enraging were the reports that China’s representatives in Paris had failed to fight this arrangement and had, in fact, approved it. Several student organizations, including the New Tide Society, had already resolved to hold a mass demonstration on May 7, but this news tipped the scales. Many believed that China had been betrayed by traitors at the conference and at high levels of the government. Groups of citizens—not just students—appealed to China’s representatives in Paris to fight for China’s claim to Shandong, including the Beijing and Shanghai Chambers of Commerce.

On May 3 at 1:00 PM, a group of students a Beijing University (北京大学 Beijing daxue) called for a meeting of student representatives from all of Beijing’s various universities. At 7:00, the students assembled and discussed the Shandong issue as well as others, finally resolving at 11:00 PM to meet en masse the next day, May 4, in Tiananmen Square. The mood was highly emotional and deadly serious: one student even cut himself and wrote “Return Our Qingdao ” on the wall in his own blood . Another “threatened…to rebuke the Chinese government by killing himself with a knife which he had brought to the meeting.” Ostensibly, the plan the students agreed to that night was for an entirely peaceful protest, but some smaller groups reportedly plotted to attack Japanese sympathizers on their own.

The next morning, at 10:00 AM, student representatives met again to plan the afternoon’s demonstration and resolved to begin it at Tiananmen, then march to the foreign legations. At 11:00 AM a Ministry of Education official dispatched by the government with a bevy of police officers arrived at Beijing University and advised the students gathering there not to demonstrate, but was ignored. By 1:30 PM, there were 3,000 students assembled near Tiananmen, and the Ministry official again addressed the students, asking them to leave and instead send representatives to talk with the government. The students again refused.

In Tiananmen, student leaders distributed a flyer titled “Manifesto of All the Students of Beijing”. Written in the vernacular language popularized by recently founded literary magazines like New Youth, it read:

Japan’s demand for the possession of [Qingdao] and other rights in [Shandong] is now going to be acceded to in the Paris Peace Conference. Her diplomacy has secured a great victory; and ours has led to a great failure. The loss of [Shandong] means the destruction of the integrity of China’s territory. Once the integrity of her territory is destroyed, China will soon be annihilated. Accordingly, we students today are making a demonstration march to the Allied legations, asking the Allies to support justice. We earnestly hope that all agricultural, industrial, commercial, and other groups of the whole nation will rise and hold citizens’ meetings to strive to secure our sovereignty in foreign affairs and to get rid of the traitors at home. This is the last chance for China in her life and death struggle. Today we swear two solemn oaths with all our fellow countrymen: (1) China’s territory may be conquered, but it cannot be given away; (2) the Chinese people may be massacred, but they will not surrender.
Our country is about to be annihilated. Up, brethren!

At 2:00 PM, after all the students had been assembled and the pamphlets distributed, the students marched southward from Tiananmen toward the foreign legation. They distributed the pamphlets to spectators, and carried a large variety of signs bearing slogans in Chinese, English and French . This demonstration was reportedly entirely peaceful and well-received by the citizens of Beijing; “even the police and secret agents, who were sent by the government to patrol, did not find any signs of intended violence on the part of the students.”

Student Protest, 1925
When the students reached the foreign legation, the police—as an extraterritorial district, the foreign section had its own police force—refused to let them enter. The students appointed representatives to meet with the American minister who were permitted to enter the district, but it was a Saturday and the American minister was absent . The representatives left a letter for him, and left letters for the British, French and Italian ministers (also not present), then returned to the mass of students to attempt to enter the Legation Quarter again. They were denied entry again by the legation police, and at the same time, Chinese police and troops arrived and attempted to force the students back. The students then marched to Chang’an Street, and arrived at the house of one of the “traitors”, 曹汝霖 Cao Rulin (the Minister of Communication) around 4:30 PM Cao had helped negotiate the Twenty-one Demands, arranged Japanese loans, and was urging the ratification of the treaty in Paris, and thus was already infamous to many of the students. At this point, accounts of what occurred begin to differ, but the students undeniably reached the house, which was guarded, and demanded to see Cao. The police and guards outside Cao’s house ignored this, and tried to force them back, at which point the students became disorganized. Some “flew into a rage, yelling loudly, ‘the traitors! The traitors!’” ; others appear to have held back. Five students somehow snuck past the guards and entered Cao’s house by way of a second-story window, and then opened the front door, allowing a mass of students to pour into the house. The students initially found only Cao’s family members and concubine, who they allowed to leave; then they smashed furniture and set the house ablaze. After the fire had been set, some students found Zhang Zongxiang (another “traitor”) sitting with another high official of the Chinese government and a Japanese reporter. Zhang was beaten and lay on the ground, playing dead while the other official ran for help. The students, on seeing the fire, retreated, and Zhang was evacuated by the Japanese journalist and some police to a local salted egg shop, but he was later discovered there by students and beaten again.

In the struggle outside the house, students and police were both injured, and one student was killed. By 5:45, most of the students had dispersed, and the rest fled when Chinese troops and police reinforcements arrived, firing warning shots into the air. 32 students were taken prisoner over the course of the afternoon, although few of them had been leaders of the demonstrations. The Chinese government declared martial law in the area of the foreign legations and rushed firefighters to Cao’s house, but it was already completely destroyed.

Whether the eruption of violence was as sudden as it seemed or not remains debatable. By all accounts, the students were completely peaceful prior to their arrival at Cao’s house. A foreign journalist for the North-China Herald who witnessed the event wrote:

There was no shouting and no cheering [as they approached], and their appearance, after a long tramp in the hot dust and sun, was anything but sinister…They came to Hatamen Street…advanced quietly down the [hutong alley] to the little side street in which [Cao Rulin] resides, came to his big double doors—and then went mad.

Not everyone was as convinced that the students decision to attack was impulsive. Luo Jialun , a participant in the demonstrations, “recalled that he saw a group of students with matches, and suspected that they had had something more than peaceful demonstration on their mind from the start.”

On its own, this incident might have simply been one of a great number of incidents sparked by the frustration of Chinese intellectuals and the failures of the national government to prevent imperialist encroachments and warlordism. However, in the days that followed May 4, strikes and rallies in support of the students occurred in cities across China. This prompted the Beijing government to implement a ban on public mass meetings, and the students responded by going on strike. This led to strikes in other cities of both students and workers. In the end, the government bowed to the demands of the demonstrators, Cao Rulin and Zhang Zongxiang were dismissed, and Chinese representatives refused to sign the Treaty of Versailles . Although China’s refusal to sign the treaty had no effect on the actual outcome—Shandong was indeed given to Japan—the May 4 demonstration has endured in history as a pivotal moment because it was this event, more than any other, that sparked nationwide organization of the “new intellectuals”. May Fourth became a rallying cry, a way to introduce ideas to the general public, and, as students and other intellectuals increasingly connected with common people and other classes in their attempts to organize, a culture. As a complex movement that incorporated both cultural and political elements, it became a natural forum for the redefinition of patriotism by intellectuals as they struggled to comprehend China’s place in modernity.


If you live in China, you may not notice anything different tomorrow. There will, no doubt, be some mentions of the anniversary in the media, but don’t expect fireworks or parades if you live outside Beijing. Tomorrow will just be Monday, but it’s still an important anniversary to remember. The May Fourth Movement could be called a lot of things — even a failure — but there’s no doubt China today wouldn’t be the same if it had never happened.

Finally, it seems wise to preemptively link Granite Studio, who will likely have some more interesting stuff on the topic, as well as credit Mutant Palm for their awesome collection of historical images.

0 thoughts on “The 90th Anniversary of May Fourth”

  1. Pingback: Hao Hao Report
  2. The historic event of May Fourth was taught in secondary schools in HK hastily. I blamed the colonial educational system for brainwashing (oh yes, the Britons are masters of this tactic). I didn’t know the uprising at Cao’s house and the chaos with Zhang….I do know this event marked the very first intellectual protest to spark political movements in modern China. Technationalism, technological determinism, whole-scale westernization can be traced to this movement. I don’t think there’s any event more important than this one in understanding the role of science and intellectuals in shaping the development discourse in twentieth-century China.


  3. Thank you, Christine Luk. I’v always wondered how HKers see 5/4. I’m also very interested in how Taiwanese textbooks portray this historical event. The KMT had (don’t know about today) a quite different approach to Lu Xun’s works before the 1990s, so it might be very helpful to know how they saw/see that movement as a whole.


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